(7 of 10)
The records bear out Johnson's claim that he rejected several requests to authorize retaliatory strikes after the election, finally yielded only when a devastating Viet Cong raid on Pleiku airfield in February 1965 destroyed or damaged numerous U.S. planes. "Mr. President, this is a momentous decision," Secretary of State Dean Rusk told Johnson at the time, and Johnson agrees that it was. He approved Rolling Thunder's sustained air attacks a month later.
Winners and Losers
Johnson emerges from the Pentagon history with added credibility problems. Although he is portrayed as a restraining influence on his more military-minded advisers—and he did move more slowly than many of them wished—he eventually adopted most of their escalation options. He, too, vastly underrated the tenacity of the Communists, and continued to employ massive air-power even after his own experts had discovered that it might actually be strengthening the North's determination to resist. Badly buffeted by events and advisers, Johnson was both commendably hesitant and condemnably conniving. As usual, he both infuriates and elicits sympathy.
Also tarnished was the man who courageously initiated the study, Secretary McNamara. His bloodless passion for systems management did not permit him to grasp the matters of spirit and motivation that technology could not conquer—until the human price had far exceeded the value of the attainable ends. Too much a proponent of the Defense and State Department plans that reached him, McGeorge Bundy failed to perform his role of giving the President a wide and honest range of choices. His brother Bill, like McNaughton, comes across as too cute and manipulation-minded for his own—and the nation's—good. The two men spun elaborate and dangerous scenarios that frequently underestimated North Vietnamese strengths.
Characteristically, the quiet Secretary of State appears too seldom in the papers to be either hurt or helped—although his reluctance to put every hasty thought on paper now looks wise. The Joint Chiefs played their usual strong, if myopic role, continually urging sterner measures, but not with any overblown certainty of victory.
The CIA Was Right
The one Government agency that emerged from the Viet Nam debacle with its honor largely intact was the CIA. Its director in the years of escalation was John McCone, a conservative Republican who believed the U.S. had to try for a knockout blow in Viet Nam or get out. He argued constantly against the consensus policy of gradual escalation.
Shaken by McCone's vigorous dissent, Johnson submitted a searching question to the CIA: Would the rest of Southeast Asia fall into Communist hands if
South Viet Nam and Laos did? The reply took issue with the conventional application of the domino theory. "With the possible exception of Cambodia," said the CIA, "it is likely that no nation in the area would quickly succumb to Communism." The spread of Communism would not be "inexorable."
McCone kept badgering the President. On a flight to New York with Johnson in late 1964, he argued that limited bombing of North Viet Nam would be ineffective. "They'll turn their collars up